Singing the Blues
At the Pasadena Playhouse, the pairing of Phylicia Rashad with Diahann Carroll in “Blue,” Charles Randolph-Wright’s seriocomic tale of a prosperous black Southern family, would be an event if the play were as good as its actors.
Instead, Rashad and Carroll (who won a Tony Award in Richard Rogers’ “No Strings” 40 years ago) as bickering mother and mother-in-law give fine performances in roles written in such broad strokes that even as we enjoy the occasional laugh line, we find it hard to be drawn into the deeper meanings director Sheldon Epps attempts to extract from this fractured family drama.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 11, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 4 inches; 178 words Type of Material: Correction
Richard Rodgers--Composer Richard Rodgers’ last name was misspelled in a theater review of “Blue” in Tuesday’s Calendar.
It begins promisingly enough with a lone trumpeter onstage, a young man (Jacques C. Smith) who will soon be joined by his 12-year-old former self (Jovun Fox) announcing the importance of music in his life.
They are, together, the character of Reuben Clark, the younger of two sons of a funeral parlor owner (Clifton Davis), who is the hard-working head of a household dominated by an overbearing, grasping matriarch, played by Rashad. The older son, Sam (Chris Butler), illustrates how in an African American family the generation gap was once represented by an Afro wig, a disco shirt and a diet of the Ohio Players.
Peggy, the mom, a former fashion model, aspires to a life of bourgeois attainment while still carrying a torch for a famous soul singer named Blue Williams she once dated in Chicago before middle-class security lured her into the cultural backwoods of South Carolina.
When she drops Williams’ LPs onto her turntable (telling us this is a memory play and the 1970s), Williams, mostly just called Blue, appears on a scaffolding in the form of talented singer Michael McElroy, giving live voice to the cool balladry of tunes by the notable former Patti LaBelle collaborator Nona Hendryx. McElroy, sheathed in a shiny blue suit and blue shirt, is a great presence, suggesting a cross between Lou Rawls and Luther Vandross, but his fitful appearances have an authority the script itself lacks, which is not a good strategy for a play with music.
In an early scene indicative of the play’s crowd-pleasing humor, Rashad has a thinly disguised orgasm (or the memory of one) while listening to Blue and forgetting that 12-year-old Reuben is seated next to her on the couch.
Reuben at first seems to be offering himself up as the story’s narrator, recalling the device of Warren Leight’s “Side Man,” seen at the playhouse last year. But his role as narrator is largely obscured as the present-time action in the Clark household unfolds in all its multigenerational conflict. Grandma Clark, known as Tilly (Carroll), comes to pay a visit, and it immediately becomes clear that Peggy is not the woman she would have picked for her son, and she doesn’t try very hard to hide her feelings in the matter.
Much is made of this familiar comic battleground (as familiar in black as in white), easily mined for humor at some distance from experiencing the truth of it, as playwrights and other scenarists have shown for ages. The arrival of disapproving Grandma, played with a withering hauteur by Carroll, offers a glimpse of status anxieties among contemporary African Americans that might come as revelations to some in the playhouse audience, but probably no more than the information gleaned from “The Cosby Show,” in which Rashad starred.
When a scheming lower-class girlfriend of the older son crashes Grandma’s first dinner at the house, the discomfort level at the table is similar to what it would be if the Ivy League son of a white CEO brought a loudmouthed waitress home to meet the family.
When the coarse girlfriend, LaTonya (Felicia Wilson), and culture-conscious mom suddenly bond over their mutual infatuation with Blue, are we really so surprised? It makes for a good story, or at least the outline of one. And when LaTonya manages, through Peggy, to meet Blue and then--oops--run off with him, Peggy is not amused. Meanwhile, we wonder if Blue couldn’t do better. It’s a plot turn that has everything going for it except believability.
At the point in the play that we begin to ponder what is truly at stake here in the saga of this funeral parlor clan with the struggling trumpeter, the specter of Blue and a mother and mother-in-law who don’t get along, we also begin to doubt that Randolph-Wright is going to make that any clearer than he has to.
Fueled by the fragments of amplified sweet soul music (McElroy croons over recorded accompaniment) and the jokes built on the reliable foundations of jealousy, snobbery and generational misunderstandings, the time passes and people get entertained. Only there are no breaks for commercials.
Randolph-Wright and Epps, who together staged “Blue” in previous incarnations off-Broadway in New York and at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., aspire to something grander than sitcom patter and pathos here, and as an audience we aspire with them until we see that the payoff is going to be all too pat and preordained.
Spanning almost 20 years, from the ‘70s into the ‘90s, “Blue” sets out to measure how life’s vicissitudes both scar and toughen its characters, but it tends to lose focus on its 2 1/2-hour journey. It’s Reuben’s story, it’s Peggy’s story, it’s the story of Blue. If the play has one question to ask, it seems to be how we will evaluate Peggy, the fallen grande dame at the center of this fractious, upwardly mobile unit of African American domesticity. Is she, as her two very different sons have experienced her, a bludgeoning taskmaster with obnoxious airs? Or is she, with all her faults, the great untidy life force that her good-hearted husband Sam argues has given him reason to go on?
The play finally wants to have it both ways and, steering away from the tragic turn that could easily overtake these same characters and events, it manufactures a final reconciliation that is heartwarming but softheaded.
“Blue,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 13. $40-$60. (626) 356-PLAY. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Phylicia Rashad...Peggy Clark
Clifton Davis...Samuel Clark Jr.
Chris Butler...Samuel Clark III
Jovun Fox...Young Reuben Clark
Michael McElroy...Blue Williams
Jacques C. Smith...Reuben Clark
Felicia Wilson...LaTonya Dinkins
Written by Charles Randolph-Wright, music by Nona Hendryx, lyrics by Nona Hendryx and Charles Randolph-Wright. Directed by Sheldon Epps. Scenic design by James Leonard Joy. Costume design by Deborah Bauer. Lighting Design by Michael Gilliam.